HUMBOLDT PARK — While landlord Gino Battaglia doesn’t like the word “gentrification," he does acknowledge that the Humboldt Park intersection where he owns all four corner buildings is about to undergo major change.
Driving much of that change will be one of the city’s top restaurateurs, Brendan Sodikoff, who has big plans for two of Battaglia’s buildings at California Avenue and Augusta Boulevard.
“It’s 100 percent the next growth area. It’s the next frontier — that’s how I feel about it,” Sodikoff said in an interview with DNAinfo Chicago.
Battaglia's quest to remake the intersection will end up leaving some neighborhood "anchors" like Knockbox Café and the nearby Peanut Gallery without leases. But Battaglia said his goal is not just to make more money.
"I never try to get the last dollar out of a building," he said. "I have a certain vision. I want a little bit more activity there and that’s my feeling."
Activity, he said, that will provide neighboring businesses with paying customers.
Sodikoff Steps In
Sodikoff — the restauratuer behind uber-popular popular spots like Green Street Smoked Meats, Au Cheval and Gilt Bar — is first setting his sights on reviving the California Clipper. He wants to remodel the well-known bar at 1002 N. California Ave. without destroying its history.
The bar, which has been slinging cocktails and hosting musicians since 1937, will continue to do so. But the spot will undergo a bathroom renovation by the end of the summer, Sodikoff said. He also would like to add a cinema that would play classic movies in the Clipper's back room.
"That’s why I want it — I don’t want it to disappear," he said. “I’d like to preserve the history and offer some current standards of operation. When I open the door on a project I don’t really close it.”
Sodikoff also wants to bring something new to the intersection. A Discount Muffler and Brake, which occupies a 2,800-square-foot location in a 1920s building, will reopen as a restaurant next year, he said. His goal is for a casual dining spot with an “approachable price point” and lots of outdoor space.
The food, however, he's undecided on — it could become a pizzeria as easily as a Mexican BBQ restaurant, he said.
“There’s not a clear path, that’s the fun,” Sodikoff said. “We’re looking forward to the adventure of it. What I know is there’s something great in that block.”
“It’s not like a puzzle piece that fits together. Things don’t fit together. They have their own personalities."
Next door, the art gallery and studio Peanut Gallery will close in October after four years. Preliminary plans include the addition of an ice cream parlor or pie shop.
That “would bring the community together,” Battaglia said.
“People who grew up there they can bring their kids and grandkids for an ice cream or piece of pie. And they can mix with the new local people,” he explained. “I like diversity in neighborhoods. To me that’s important. I don’t like the term gentrification — people getting pushed out. I want to be a community that’s more inclusive.”
On the southeast corner, longtime Chicago chef Rodney Staton and partner Jason Balutan will open as-yet undisclosed restaurant.
One of the most apparent impediments to growth in the area is its relative isolation from major public transit lines.
That's why Sodikoff wants to turn it into a destination.
“I want people to make the trek to get to Humboldt Park,” he said.
But the isolation could also be a way to build up community and a neighborhood feel for those who already live there, and new business could offer residents "reasons to not have to travel far,” he added.
With all the new places set to open, Sodikoff said, there could be some synergy among the new businesses, whose customers and employees might reside close by.
“It’s a smaller scale, people live right nearby,” he said. “There could be this creative energy on that block — so it’s going to attract a certain type of person.”
Still, the vision for the intersection isn't so rosy for the owners of Knockbox Cafe and Peanut Gallery, both of whom admit they enjoyed unbeatable deals from Battaglia for the last four or five years. They will shutter their storefronts in October when their current leases aren't renewed.
The owners of the both the cafe and the art studio all live and work in Humboldt Park, near their stores, and over the years have been employed by each other at their respective businesses and by Battaglia at the California Clipper.
“I often work at the Clipper; I worked at the Knockbox for three years, and my apartment is only blocks away,” said Peanut Gallery co-owner Jessi Meliza via email.
“I have had many conversations with Gino, and typically agreed with his vision for the direction of his little corner … [but] I'm concerned as a resident that the speed of change will only do more to displace my neighbors who were already wary enough of change.”
Knockbox owner Jonah Shalack said he wonders if he and his wife will stay in Chicago when the café’s lease expires, but he’s certain he won’t open another business.
“Nothing wrong was done. There’s nothing wrong that happened, so what can I get mad about? But I figured we were going be here for a long time.”
But Knockbox is underutilized, according to Battaglia — it has the space and some of the equipment needed to service a full restaurant but Knockbox doesn't serve full meals. He's leaving options open for a better fit.
But that's business, Shalack said. "I get it.”
Battaglia and Sodikoff said they noticed something of a kindred spirit in the other as their plans first began developing. They used similar words and phrases in separate interviews: a focus on architecture and preservation, diversity and community, growth and local development, but little mention of gentrification.
“I just want to be a great addition to Chicago," Sodikoff said. "I don’t have very complex goals. All I want to do is keep developing a body of work that I’m proud of. It’s all very simple. It’s a very gratifying feeling ... turning [an area] into something coveted.
“Gino saw what this could be and he got involved, he's very creative in that way. It takes a special person to see an underserved area and see its potential. Can you see it? I think that’s what it comes down to."
Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff and landlord Gino Battaglia had "partnered" in a quest to remake the intersection of Augusta and California, leaving the Knockbox Café and the nearby Peanut Gallery without leases. Sodikoff has no involvement in the lease arrangements with Knockbox Cafe or Peanut Gallery.